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Drones, more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aircrafts that fly without human pilots, which can operate either autonomously or by remote control.[1] Drone technology was originally developed for military use but has since been applied to other tasks considered too dangerous, difficult, or expensive for manned aircraft. Commercial variants are publicly available for purchase, typically for recreation. The usage and impact of drones for environmental, commercial, and surveillance applications has been a growing topic of discussion. Ethical issues include residential privacy, geofencing, UAV noise, transparency in military action, the well-being of military drone operators, and automation of drone systems.

A commercial drone with video capabilities


The origination of drone technology stretches back to the end of World War I when the United States developed a design for aerial torpedoes.[2] In 1915, British armed forces used aerial imagery to capture maps of German fortifications.[2] Aerial mapping is now used widely for both military and civil purposes. The U.S. produced the first remote-controlled aircraft in 1939.[2] However, pilots were still needed for takeoff.[3]

Israel developed unpiloted surveillance machines in 1973, later collaborating with the U.S. to produce a reconnaissance drone.[2] In 1994, the Pentagon produced the first generation of Predator drones, initially armed solely with surveillance cameras but later approved to carry missiles.[2] These surveillance drones could provide 60-mile panoramic views.[4]

After 9/11, a targeted killing campaign was approved to eliminate specific high-value target individuals.[5] The first such attack by a drone occurred in 2002, when the target was falsely assumed to be Osama bin Laden.[3]

Since then, the U.S. has carried out numerous drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan and Somalia.[3] The Federal Aviation Administration has approved 934 government agencies in the U.S. to operate drones.[2] However, there has been much public debate about the ethics of drones due to the numerous civilian casualties they have caused.[4] This debate, in addition to concerns about privacy, has led 35 states to introduce legislation limiting drone use by government agencies.[2]


All drones are autonomous to some extent because they can fly or navigate without a human pilot physically on board the vehicle.[6] Although drones vary in size and capability, their general structure is similar to that of manned aircraft. Propellers are necessary for keeping drones airborne and stable.[7] Electronic speed controllers (ESCs) deliver electricity to outrunner motors, which require a lot of power to spin the propellers of a drone.[7] To make the drones self-reliant, flight controller boards, which can be updated to improve performance, have sensors that measure various aspects of movement.[7] Smaller drones are generally operated by Lithium-polymer batteries that deliver high-energy bursts of power,[7] but large drones rely on fuel similarly to traditional aircraft.[8]

Drones are generally tracked remotely using a satellite link to a ground-control station.[8] However, completely autonomous drones are being developed that use artificial intelligence to continuously learn and improve upon their specified operations.[9] These drones also have radios that allow them to communicate with each other.[9] There have been ethical concerns about the military applications of unmanned drones because they allow their owners to kill enemy soldiers, and sometimes civilians, without risking any lives of their own, highlighting the extreme asymmetry in this type of warfare.



Drones can be used commercially for anything from monitoring livestock to film-making. In February of 2017, drones were used to help map new parking garages and a public-transit station for the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.[10]

One of the most famous commercial applications of drones is Amazon’s development of Prime Air. Prime Air is a new delivery option being developed by Amazon that will deliver packages to customers in less than 30 minutes using drones.[11] The primary goal of Prime Air is to create a fully autonomous delivery service that would reduce much of Amazon’s current company costs.[12] However, there are many regulatory barriers preventing Prime Air from being fully implemented.[12]


Drones are useful in monitoring and mitigating environmental disasters because they can access areas too dangerous for human pilots. In October 2016, NASA utilized a large drone to track Hurricane Matthew.[13] This was a safer, cheaper option for collecting weather data than commissioning single pilot planes, as NASA has done in the past.[13] Drones are also being tested for aerial firefighting. These drones are designed to drop balls that ignite into flames and burn grass to prevent wildfires from spreading.[14]

In sensitive ecological areas, drones can be useful for conservation efforts. In 2014, a team of college students created a biodegradable drone that can monitor and collect data from these areas without causing destruction.[15] This idea also has people considering the potential military applications of a drone that could quickly decompose if it crashed in enemy territory.[15]


Agricultural drones have changed farming methods in the past few years. Drones that fly over farms are able to monitor crop progress, check to make sure crops are healthy, as well as check damage after a storm. Drones ensure that farms are performing at a maximum yield. Drones play a huge part in the future of farming as they have the potential to perform more valuable tasks.[16]


Through their utilization of live-feed video, infrared cameras, sensors, and radar, drones can carry out advanced surveillance without drawing much or any attention. In addition to their mapping and facial recognition capabilities, some of these drones intercept phone activity and determine individuals’ locations through the use of Wi-Fi crackers and fake cell phone towers.[17] Although more commonly used to carry out military missions in non-U.S. territories[18], surveillance drones have recently been used within the U.S. for purposes such as tracking gang activity and reducing crime.[19] There are concerns that drones are becoming increasingly a threat used to spy on citizens with no legal basis.[17]


Drone usage has become significantly more more prominent in the military and is expected to continue to skyrocket and become more efficient as the technology advances. In addition to surveillance (see above) many drones are now being used to commit air strikes and missile attacks on enemy soldiers and terrorists. Any time a drone can be used to potentially save the life of a pilot, the military is committed to using them. Instead of having to fly planes themselves, pilots will be given a live feed from the drone and a remote controller to maneuver the drone and fire missiles when needed [20]. Drones and drone strikes have been most commonly seen in Pakistan, with 430 minimum confirmed strikes and 2,515 - 4,026 confirmed killed, of which 424 - 969 where civilians and 172 - 207 were children [21].

Loss of Jobs

One problem with the advances of technology, as seen in the past in similar industries and unemployment, is the loss of jobs. It is hypothesized that drones will take away a lot of jobs, thereby creating more unemployment, and causing a cascade effect of lower wages, and ultimately moving humans to a less generous society.

Commercial use of drones will worsen the human contact that is necessary for developing a conscious of what is right or wrong based on how our actions affect others. For instance, it is easy to blame a drone for a missed delivery, as it cannot respond back as it is just mechanical parts. However, it is much more appropriate and human to discuss the issue with another human being who's responsibility to do resolve those issues. Losing jobs is important, but it is arguable that knowing what is to be human is of the utmost importance in maintaining a caring society.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV)

Known as an underwater drone, and similar to a robotic submarine, a UUV is a vehicle that is able to operate underwater without human interaction. These drones are able to collect data independently and report back to the user. Boeing has introduced its largest UUV that is 51 feet long and can operate for months at a time. The United States Navy uses UUVs for underwater surveillance and mine detection while scientists use UUVs to study lakes, oceans, and ocean floors. The petroleum industry also uses UUVs to make detailed maps of the seafloor and monitoring pipelines. [22]

Ethical Issues

There are numerous ethical issues that have arisen because of the advent of drone technology. Due to their recent and rapid technological advances, legal regulation of the operation of drones of every variety -- recreational, industrial, and military -- has lagged behind their implementation in the field. Concerns over appropriate safety requirements, operating environments, operator certifications, and the very applications of drones are the subject of much debate. Thus, it has taken some time for governments to begin to develop legal, moral, and ethical standards for all possible-use cases of drones.

Residential Privacy

With the increase of drones use in the public, there has been an increasing number of reports of people assaulting drones because they flew over and thus trespassed on private property. One incident that happened in July of 2016 was when a Kentucky father spotted a drone hovering over his backyard where his two daughters were sunbathing. Consequently, he shot the drone down with his shotgun.[23] A New Jersey man also once shot down a drone to protect his family's privacy. [24] Cases like these are not unusual as drones can and have intruded on individual's privacies, which resonates as a great point on spatial privacy. Before, people could feel secure behind their fences or in their homes, but the introduction of drones has made the idea of a fence for privacy irrelevant. Currently, because the technology is so new, there is no national regulatory regime to manage drone privacy.


To help promote privacy measures, some drone companies such as DJI pushed a software update that used geofencing. The update was designed to limit flying drones over sensitive areas such as prisons and airports, as well as Washington, D.C.[25] The software works by enacting a virtual barrier to prevent drones from flying over "no-fly-zones". These zones would only be accessible for a temporary amount of time by verified DJI accounts. While this is a step towards ensuring privacy measures are taken for the new technology, some people have felt that limiting where people can fly infringes on a person's freedom to fly a drone. Yet, there are definitely advantages for companies to do this, as geofencing can help prevent drone manufacturers from receiving bad press should drones crash in sensitive areas.

UAV Noise

Drones must be flown at a low altitude due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules so that the operator is always in visual contact with the drone. This means that when drones are being operated, they are very noisy and can interrupt wildlife and human populations. Drones can essentially fly anywhere, interrupting and creating noise in people's backyards as well as disturbing animals in nature.[26] The National Parks Service ban was created partly due to the noise concerns in disturbing big horn sheep in Utah and interrupting visitors at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

A rendering of a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone launching a munition.[27]

Transparency in Military Action

Historically, conventional military incursions have been high-profile, newsworthy, and publicly obvious events. The decision to go to war was made only with the most careful of consideration and public debate. Drones, however, have begun to subvert this standard of public knowledge of violent action because they can be operated by just a few members of a military team at very low cost whereas an invasion takes a relatively large number of participants and huge logistical expense. The low barrier to use of drones in military attacks -- commonly referred to as "drone strikes" -- has permitted government and military officials to take action while revealing little to no awareness of their operations to the public.

This advantage of drones has been leveraged repeatedly by the United States government and military to conduct strategic missile strikes on foreign enemies. Additionally, the ability to maintain opaqueness has led to the idea of the United States' participation in a "shadow war"[28], or a conflict in which the American public is largely unaware of the specifics of the conflict and specific engagements within the larger war. Historically, the participation of the United States in violent conflict has been confirmed by the public through the debate and testimony of elected officials, however, drones have begun to move the debate over whether or not to join a conflict away from the realm of public influence.

A primary example of this is the ongoing strikes in Somalia, aimed at reducing the threat from terrorist organization al-Shebab. Many have criticized the United States Government and military, primarily AFRICOM, for inconsistencies in reporting on civilian casualties due to miscalculations in these strikes.[29]

Well-Being of Military Drone Operators

Military applications of drones are ethically problematic not only because they are easily operated in relative obscurity and with questionable degrees of oversight, but also on account of the ethics of remote operation of military vehicles. Numerous studies in recent years have begun to investigate the health and mental well-being of military servicemen and -women who serve as remote drone pilots. Some researchers have postulated that they "expect that drone pilots actually have a higher rate of mental health problems because of the unique pressures of their job", compared to their colleagues who fly manned-aircraft missions.[30] . The evidence does not clearly indicate whether post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs among remote operators at higher rates than pilots of manned missions; however, there is a growing concern over the requirements of the job of a remote pilot and the psychological stress of the role.

Aviation Security Risks

In January 2019, DJI, one of the world’s leading commercial drone manufacturers, monitored reports of drones flying in close proximity to various airports, offering assistance to investigators and airports where these sightings have occurred. DJI urges caution in evaluating reports of drone incidents. "This recent rash of unconfirmed drone sightings may reflect the power of suggestion more than actual use of drones at airports,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs. “As more airports and airlines use drones for their own inspection, surveying and security purposes, aviation stakeholders must determine how to respond to drone sightings in ways that help ensure safety but cause the least disruption. DJI stands ready to assist the industry with this important work.” [31]

Automated Drone Systems

Automated Drone Systems, also referred to as Unmanned Systems (UMS), have sparked a revolution in contemporary war fighting. According to Noel Sharkey, the main ethical concern surrounding automated drone systems is "that no autonomous robots or artificial intelligence systems are able to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants." Currently, there are no visual or sensing systems set up to protect civilians and others alike from automated drone strikes. Furthermore, there is a great deal of confusion over who would be held accountable if a mishap were to occur. [32]

Media Depictions & Popular Culture

The 2016 documentary "National Bird", directed by Sonia Kennebeck, features whistleblowers from the military who detail the United States Government's recent work with drones, and the weaknesses in the underdeveloped programs, both for deployment and use of strike drones, and of training and mental health care for those who operate them. Particularly key to the film's story line is the guilt these operators felt for the killings they carried out from quite a distance, compared to typical airstrikes where the operator is in-country, in the airspace above the targets.

Drones have been central to the stories lines of multiple recent TV show episodes and even musicals. The current sit-com Modern Family had an episode where one of the main characters is spied on at the pool by a "peeping-Tom" style drone, while lead actors such as Anne Hathaway have played drone pilots in theater and film.[33]

The Netflix series Black Mirror features an episode on drones.[33] The fictional, dystopian plot involves a swarm of drones developed by the government to help pollinate plants, as a replacement for bees. However, the system is hacked, turning the drones into lethal rouge actors. Depictions such as this one highlight risks that could appear if drones continue to become more prominent in modern times without legal regulations keeping up with their development.


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